Published on Feb 03, 2021

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. Thanks for joining. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer, and you're watching Coronavirus in Context.

There's a lot of misinformation out there, especially, when it comes to your health. How do you know what to believe? To provide some insights and even give you some tools, I've asked Steven Brill. He's an award winning author, journalist, and co-CEO of NewsGuard. Mr. Brill, thanks for joining me.

STEVEN BRILL: Happy to be with you. Thanks for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: Tell our audience first about NewsGuard. Why did you feel there was a need to create it? And what does it do?

STEVEN BRILL: Well, here's the need to create it a nutshell. If you think about how we consume media before the internet, just think about a library. You go into a library, books are neatly arranged on shelves according to subject matter. You take a book or magazine off the shelf and you can read the book jacket and it tells you, there's something about the author, tells you who the publisher is. You can get a sense of whether you want to read that and the credentials of what you're going to be reading.

Now, imagine you walked into a library and instead, there were $2 billion pieces of paper just flying around in the air. You grab one out of the air, you start to read it. You don't know who's financing it, you don't know what their credentials are, you have no idea what their agenda is and worst of all, there's no librarian there to tell you something about all that, the way there is in a library. That's the internet, that's your Facebook feed, that's your Twitter feed, that's your Google search, that's your Bing search. That's everything on the internet, everything--

JOHN WHYTE: But Steven, sometimes in some ways people might be thinking, and this is why I think there's analogy, it's in the library. So even though there's billions of pieces of paper around, it's in the library, it must be OK. So--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

STEVEN BRILL: Well, a library is a library.

JOHN WHYTE: --internet, it's OK.

STEVEN BRILL: People who care about content. Facebook is not a library and the people running Facebook are not librarians. They don't much care apparently about the reliability of what they're serving up.

And in fact, they don't even-- their claim is they don't even serve it up to you, it's everybody else. It's a platform. So anybody can be a publisher. Now, the good thing about the internet is that anybody can be a publisher, which makes it much more democratic. The bad thing about the internet is that anybody can be a publisher.

Now, when you take all those issues of unreliability and trustworthiness and understanding who's feeding you the news and combine that with the subject of health care, all those dangers multiply. Because first of all, good information about health care is really important. It's much more important that you get good information about the quality of a treatment than it is, let's say, then that you get good information about whether you should go watch a movie or not.

It's really important. It's fraught with all kinds of emotional issues. If you're sick, you're scared. And let's say, a doctor tells you you have some kind of a disease, the first thing you do is, you Google the disease. That's what everybody does.

Now, luckily if you Google and WebMD comes up, which has a big green rating from NewsGuard because, according to our nine criteria, WebMD is reliable. It is something you can count on. But the next site that might pop up in a Google search might be something called cancer.news. And cancer.news looks exactly like cancer.org. Cancer.org is the site of the American--

JOHN WHYTE: Cancer Society--

STEVEN BRILL: Cancer Society. Cancer.news is a hoax health care site that will tell you that if you can get some apricot pits, you can cancel your appointment with your own colleges because the apricot pits are going to cure your cancer. And trust me, they have more engagement online than the Mayo Clinic or cancer.org.

So what we've decided to do at NewsGuard is we've created a whole subset of product called healthguard.com which is targeted at all the health sites out there. Anything online that in any way covers health care, provides advice about health care, whether it's about the COVID vaccine or cancer or good diets. And the way we do it is, we have a browser extension that the beginning in January people can download for free at the end of January. They can download HealthGuard for free.

And if they have that browser extension, when they go to Facebook or Google or Twitter, they will be able to see our little green or red icons. And when you hover over one of our green icons, it will tell you why this is green according to our nine criteria, their basic journalistic criteria. Or if you hover over it and it's red, it will tell you why it's red, why it's unreliable. And we run through all the criteria. If you want even--

JOHN WHYTE: Let's go over. I want to go over these criteria. Let's start off with, you break it down, the scoring first in terms of credibility. So let's go over when we want to assess credibility. What do we look for?

You start off with, does not repeatedly publish false content. But that can be a challenge, because how do you know? But your rating is in terms of.

STEVEN BRILL: Well, the first thing we know is when it comes to health care, we don't know. So we consult experts. We will cite sources, whether it's the American Cancer Society, the CDC, the FDA, the Mayo Clinic.

So we will read a website and let's say the website says, literally says, I'm not making this up, that apricot pits cure cancer. You can search and you will find that myth is out there enough that the American Cancer Society or Sloan Kettering or M.D. Anderson may have actually posted something on their website to knock that myth down. And that's what we will cite. It's not my opinion about whether fruit pits cure cancer.

JOHN WHYTE: That's why I assume based on experts.

STEVEN BRILL: It's an expert. So everything we do is done by humans. There are no algorithms here.

We have hired dozens of journalists to read all these sites and to do the research and it's done according to nine criteria. Now, the first one as you mentioned was repeatedly publishing false news. There were other criteria such as disclosure of the ownership of the site. Let's say you come to a site because you're worried about whether you can get melanoma or not, and if the site that pops up recommends a certain drug or a certain screening material, you'd probably want to know if that site is owned by whoever happens to be selling that product as opposed to whether the site is WebMD, which doesn't own any drug products.

JOHN WHYTE: So the criteria are-- we will put them on the screen for people to see as well-- it does not repeatedly publish false content, it gathers and presents information responsibly, it regularly corrects or clarifies errors, handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly, avoids deceptive headlines. That's just on the credibility side. Steven, it would seem like you need to hire an army, just on little credibility and we haven't even gotten to transparency.

STEVEN BRILL: We have been able to rate in the countries where we operate including, obviously, the United States, all the news and information sites responsible for 95% of all engagement online. The key to this is, we rate the overall reliability of the site, its standards, its processes and its standards. That doesn't mean that the New York Times or WebMD or the Mayo Clinic site might not make a mistake, it just means that they'll correct their mistakes, it means that overall you can rely on them more than you can rely on cancer.news.

That's a key ingredient in the overall processes and integrity of the publisher and that's how we achieve scale. And by the way, we do this in a journalistic way. If we're going to criticize any site and give any site even one red mark for just one of the nine criteria, they're still going to get an overall green but we call for comment. Journalists call for comment, algorithm's don't call for comment.

So everything about our process is totally transparent and it's completely accountable. If someone complains about a mistake we've made, we investigate it. If we'd made a mistake, we correct it.

JOHN WHYTE: On the transparency side, and you've discussed some of this, the website discloses ownership and financing, it clearly labels advertising, it reveals who's in charge, including possible conflicts of interest and the site provides names of content creators along with either content or biographical information. Are those things also that consumers should look for, as well?

STEVEN BRILL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, every one of our nine criteria, it's basically, the nine criteria have to do with what's on the website. So it's in essence a roadmap for a consumers, even if they're not using our browser extension, which I hope they will, they can look for those nine criteria themselves.

For example, if you're reading something on a health care site that's giving you health care advice, you should want to know who's giving you the advice. Is this person a cancer expert or is this person an intern? And I mean a journalism intern not even a medical intern.

JOHN WHYTE: Why do you think people are so easily misled when it comes to their health? And people know when they read stock tips online or they read information about finances. You need to double check everything, you need to do your own research, you need to look around.

Nobody goes online and then tries to fix their own breaks in their car, but when it comes to health, somebody has a website or a blog, all of a sudden they're like, Oh I should try that. When it's your body. So where is the disconnect there?

STEVEN BRILL: Well, they are copies. First of all, I'll disagree with you a little bit. There are a whole bunch of fraudulent in the personal finance side so--

JOHN WHYTE: Well, we do know that. I just-- I'll look at their requests of give me your routing number because I have got to give you $10 million. But--

STEVEN BRILL: Your point is well taken. You would never think to fix your breaks by yourself or to change the plumbing in your house by yourself. But let's look at what happens when you're in a health care situation.

One of the temptations is that you want to find an easier, better alternative than the doctor has suggested. So just to give you a personal example, four years ago, I was told during a routine checkup that I had an aortic aneurysm, which is really bad stuff. You have no symptoms. If it burst you just die but you have no symptoms.

And I was working out every day, I was healthy. And my doctor said, "You need to have open heart surgery." So I took it very seriously, he's a great doctor but I still went home that night and started googling around to see well, maybe there's an easier way to deal with this. And luckily I didn't succumb to, there were some articles that said if your doctor says you have an aortic aneurysm, you need open heart surgery, here's something else you can do.

But a lot of people are scared, they're not informed and they're clutching at straws. In the case of vaccines, in the COVID vaccine, there's traditionally, a lot of skepticism about vaccines. That has really ramped up in the last few years based on campaigns about the measles vaccine, the MMR vaccine, and now you have the COVID vaccine, which by everybody's understanding has been, quote, "rushed," unquote. But there may be less understanding that of the nature of what rushed in this case really means. It's still gone through the clinical trials it needs to go through et cetera, et cetera.

So there's that sort of anti-vax fear in the air. Then there's all the politics associated with COVID, where a certain percentage of the population has been persuaded that not even COVID is real. So if that's not real, why should you take a vaccine for it?

But we are finding that a third or more of people in this country and around the world are saying they won't take the vaccine. And the place where it's really been driven home is the reports you and I have been reading lately that even non-MD health care workers are hesitant at the vaccine, like a third of them. My wife got her first vaccine yesterday morning, and the nurse who was giving her the vaccine, they were chatting and my wife said, "Well, you must have had the vaccine. How was it?" And he said, "No. I haven't taken the vaccine." And she said, "Why not?" "Well, I don't know. You know I want to see what happens. I want to wait."

That's a nurse in a highly regarded hospital giving the vaccine. If you came into that vaccine room as my wife did and if you were at all hesitant about the vaccine and the first thing the nurse is about to give it to you tells you is, well, I don't want to take it. Just think about that.

JOHN WHYTE: What made you decide to co-create NewsGuard? Was there a particular event or was it just a point in time you were like, enough is enough?

STEVEN BRILL: It's a combination of things. And all the businesses I've started have been journalistically oriented except for one. And it was really, in this case, geared toward how do you restore belief in legitimate journalism and everything that goes with that, everything that's so important to our democracy. In this case, so important to our health care that goes along with belief in legitimate journalism?

And the only way to do that is to weed out the other stuff. And that has to that also helps with advertising. If advertisers are scared that nobody believes anything, then they stop advertising on news, which many have. And if instead they have a way to advertise on news that is overall reliable, doesn't mean you agree with everything on the website, it means that it's overall these are people who wake up in the morning and they're trying to do something good. So it was meant really to restore faith in the profession that's been my life.

JOHN WHYTE: And how's NewsGuard supported?

STEVEN BRILL: Well, we have different kinds of licensees. There is a way a consumer can subscribe to either the HealthGuard browser extension or the NewsGuard browser extension. But during this emergency, we are making the HealthGuard browser extension available for free to everyone in the countries we serve until the end of June.

Our real business model is the companies that serve consumers. For example, broadband providers or Microsoft through its edge browser licenses NewsGuard and gives it to all of its customers. And on the advertising side, advertising agencies license a NewsGuard related product called BrandGuard and use it to make sure their clients, their brands are not advertising on sites that will embarrass them and are advertising on legitimate news.

So if you take the view that I do that there's a market for people looking for ways to provide a trust tool for the internet, then this looks like a pretty good business model. And so far it is.

JOHN WHYTE: Steven, I want to thank you for taking your time today for all that you're doing to help combat misinformation that there really is rampant right now, particularly as it relates to health.

STEVEN BRILL: Well, thanks for having me.

[MUSIC PLAYING]